originally published May 19, 2014

Classic tales of the old west are filled with men who are forced by circumstance to be MEN. By the code of the west, a guy’s holster must be overflowing with the gooey, musky froth of machismo. Whether it’s Marshal Will Kane awaiting a fleet of vengeful gunmen at high noon or Ethan Edwards roaming the desert for years in search of a niece, a man’s got to do what societal norms dictate that a man’s got to do.

But what about the women? Sure, there were a few gun-toting types like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, but for the most part women were relegated to the supporting roles, both in history and in cinema. They were the wives, the mothers, the schoolmarms and the whores. When placed out of context, in a position of survival, their best course of action is to stay put and await the manly arms of rescue.

This is where the movies diverge from reality. Apart from a few notable exceptions, cinematic women of the old west might have had some spunk and chutzpah, but they were rarely enabled with the gifts to get stuff done. In reality, the women who hoofed it across the frontier had the potential for every bit the badassery of their male counterparts. As an example I present the typical 1850’s housewife – a lady by the name of Fanny Kelly.

Fanny married Josiah S. Kelly, a guy whose health problems were not well suited to the arid Kansas climate. It was 1864 and the bulk of Americans on the move were headed north and west, far away from the meat-splatter of the Civil War and into the last untamed swath of the continent. They set their sights toward the area we now call Idaho and/or Montana, bringing along Mary Hurley, Fanny’s seven-year-old niece whom the couple had adopted. The trio were joined by Franklin and Andy, two “colored servants”, and a Methodist clergyman named Mr. Sharp.

Shortly afterwards, William and Sarah Larimer hooked up with the convoy, towing their eight-year-old son Frank. Two more men, Gardner Wakefield and Noah Taylor rode with them. They were a party of nine adults and two kids. Enough bodies to ward off lone bandits, with enough provisions to get across the country in relative comfort. Of course the real threat along the trail wasn’t so much pesky robbers or indulgent eating binges.

On July 12, somewhere near the Little Box Elder Creek in eastern Wyoming, the group ran into a battalion of about 250 Sioux, all painted and geared up for warfare. There was no fighting – these eleven travelers were settlers, not super-ninjas. They tried instead to use diplomacy, to placate the Sioux with kindness and outright schmoozery. It didn’t work. The Sioux attacked without warning.

Mr. Sharp, Franklin, and Noah Taylor were killed instantly. Everyone else tried to flee. Here’s where that cowboy chivalry would have been nice to see, but alas, it was everyone for themselves. The two fathers – Josiah Kelly and William Larimer – got away, as did Andy and Gardner Wakefield. William Larimer took three arrows through the flesh but still he survived. The ladies and their children were left behind, taken as prisoners.

That night, as the two women and two children huddled together in the darkness, assessing their situation and trying to decide whether to wait for capture or to make a move themselves, Fanny decided they had to act. They had no idea how rapey or how punch/kick/spear-happy their captors might be. She sent her niece, Mary Hurley, into the darkness to flee. She followed shortly thereafter but was caught and beaten. The next night, Sarah and Frank Larimer took their shot, only luck was more firmly on their side. They were reunited with the wounded William Larimer at Deer Street Station a few days later before returning to Kansas.

Mary Hurley didn’t fare so well. Her arrow-riddled and scalped remains were recovered not long afterwards. Fanny – totally unaware of this but now being watched with meticulous care since she was the only prisoner left – was stuck. She did her best to adjust to her predicament, but it wasn’t easy. She was nearly killed by an old chief after having dropped and broken his pipe, and after accepting a gift of stockings from one of the chief’s brothers-in-law (apparently a nefarious faux pas in the Sioux book of proper etiquette), she almost took an arrow in the head. It was a tricky period of adjustment.

When they arrived at the Sioux village, a Union Army regiment under the direction of Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked them. Fanny had hoped this would be her salvation, but she was whisked away with the other women and children. After the battle, the Sioux were so pissed off at having been attacked they threatened to burn Fanny at the stake. But Chief Ottawa, the man who had led the initial raid and captured Fanny, spoke in her defense. It was agreed she would be spared and would become his property.

In early September a wagon train led by Captain James L. Fisk was attacked by a large band of Sioux. Fanny was sent to exchange letters with the Captain to try to get him to lower his guard. Given that her captors weren’t literate in English, this was an opportunity for her to give Fisk the scoop on what the Sioux were really up to. She had to return though (probably under threat of bloodshed by nearby Sioux warriors), but Fisk promised her he’d spread word of her situation.

Fanny was shipped around from village to village, chief to chief. General Alfred Sully was still on the case, but she was hard to find. An Indian warrior had been offered a huge reward to help free her, but his loyalty was to his people. Once, four wagons showed up with white traders intent on trading a heap of goodies for her release, and all but one were slain, their purchase offer kept as claimed booty by the tribe.

It was while she was in the clutches of the Sihasapa tribe that Fanny finally figured out her plan for freedom. A warrior named Jumping Bear, whom Fanny had befriended, agreed to take a letter from Fanny to General Sully at Fort Sully (yes, the guy named a fort after himself – wouldn’t you?). The letter told of the Sihasapa’s plan to offer Fanny’s release as bait to get inside the fort so they could attack. The general got the letter, and when the Sihasapa rode in with Fanny in tow a few days later, they slammed the doors shut and gained the immediate upper hand. Fanny was free.

Fanny returned to Josiah, and the two settled in Kansas. She gave birth to their child shortly after Josiah passed away from cholera. Fanny and her little one eventually moved to Wyoming where they shacked up with the Larimer family. It was a semi-happy ending to a story that could have concluded in a far more grotesque and tragic manner. Fanny survived – not by the grace of a tough-talkin’, spur-sportin’ John Wayne type, but by her own wits and ingenuity.

Someone should really make a movie out of this.

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